Trust. Imagination. Friendship. These are hardly the first things that come to mind when you typically think of a rock band – but these are the main themes woven throughout an interview with Brooklyn-based rockers We Are Augustines. Come to think of it, the best word to describe this band may very well be “uncommon”. They are uncommonly honest – about everything from music industry flaws to hard-earned wisdom. Uncommonly mature – entirely willing to discuss their own mistakes without an ounce of ego. Uncommonly gracious – to everyone around them and to each other; perhaps largely due to never forgetting what their not-so-distant dark times were like.
While it was those same dark times that define the well received debut record Rise Ye Sunken Ships – which addresses sensitive issues surrounding tragedy and illness – you couldn’t find a band with members more happy, shiny and full of warmth as these three. Frontman Billy McCarthy may be known for his bottomless well of pained emotion on stage, but is quicker to smile than the Cheshire Cat. Full of life, he’s brimming with ideas and observations that he excitedly expresses as thoughts pop into his active mind. Although bassist Eric Sanderson matches McCarthy’s presence and zeal, it’s a different energy. He embodies patience and calm. He’s gifted at listening and chooses his articulate words thoughtfully. Lastly, it’s easy to see why drummer Rob Allen was chosen to evolve the McCarthy/Sanderson duo into a trio. He fits in with them perfectly – equally as gracious, and just as ready to crack a joke and belly-laugh with his fellow goofball bandmates. The trinity they’ve formed enables them to each be the best music-making versions of themselves they can be, while protecting each other in the process.
Thankfully, the gents of We Are Augustines finally have the cause to be in celebration mode. No more need to reflect on all the factors that contributed to the demise of McCarthy’s and Sanderson’s previous band Pela. No more need to dwell on all the angering tragic events that actually fueled all 12 songs on their album. At this point, everything is looking up – and what we have on our hands is a good old-fashioned tale of perseverance paying off.
“I was starting to lose faith that music people actually had the voice that I believed they did,” says McCarthy. “I think we really felt like we were really hardworking – and I thought maybe the world just isn’t the place that I think it is. We shopped the record around everywhere and nobody wanted it. I mean, I think we always knew we loved music but it was getting pretty gory,” he continues. “It was coming to a point where we accepted the debt of this entire thing. There were a lot of things to be paid off and paid back.” Sanderson echoes that sentiment, making reference to the limbo phase that transpired between the ending of Pela and the birth of We Are Augustines. “We had no way of paying [that debt] off. We didn’t even have a band at the time. We accepted the debt solely based on the belief that what we had created was good enough.”
The challenge there was that the band encountered competing beliefs. McCarthy, the ever animated storyteller, explains the scenario like a battle between two perceptions fighting for one reality. “We got around some pretty rough and tumble folks in the industry. It was very “Wizard of Oz”. There was the Wicked Witch of the West over here and the kiss on the forehead over there and yet it was the same record. This tug of war was happening over 12 songs. The forces of positivity and empowerment were saying, ‘I don’t care. It doesn’t matter what they say. People will still love this and you’ve still got it in you. Yes, you’re gonna’ have to work a day job and yes, who knows what else – but KEEP GOING!’ And there’s other people saying, ‘It’s too depressing. I don’t know. Given the nature of what’s going on with you guys and all this debt and all the other costs, I would just shelf it.’ But we had to keep going.”
Sanderson admits to a time when the overwhelming nature of it all had him questioning himself. He rattled off a list of the factors that began to weigh so heavily on his shoulders. “The whole thing with accepting the debt and the struggle, and not really being sure where we’re going, and labels turning us down left and right, and people flat out telling us to put the record out and bury it – the hardest thing about all that is when you lose your own foundation. You start to question yourself. Am I crazy? Am I the guy who should jump off the ship and doesn’t get it?”
At this point, they could have called it a day, packed up with all their growing debt in tow and started new versions of themselves somehow – but it was actually kind forces in their lives that kept them on track. Sanderson explains, “We were really fortunate to have a lot of friends, people that we respected (not just our “friends” friends – but people in the industry too) and they essentially were the fire that kept the fire in us going.” McCarthy adds, “[At that point] it was incredible to still say , ‘I don’t care. We’re going to accept an extraordinary amount of debt to prove our point and carry on with our love for this project.’ ”
And it’s a good thing they’ve carried on – because Rise Ye Sunken Ships has been embraced by critics, fans and David Letterman alike. “It feels really vindicating [to have such a positive response to this record] because I think Eric and I both thought we were going crazy at some point,” he confesses. “The fans and the music community are valuing the honesty and being forthright – and we’re valuing people being fair. I think that is what’s really gratifying; we want to live in a world where people treat each other well and work is done at a high level; we feel good when we go home and we can’t wait until we get back. That’s the dream and we’re kind of getting a glimpse of it now and it’s looking pretty good,” says McCarthy with a huge smile on his face.
Hearing them recount the quest for this record to find its way, you can almost see the thick line in the sand they’ve drawn to separate how things used to be and how they are now. Sanderson sheds light on what that line really is: Trust. “They say don’t take advice from people that you don’t respect. And right now trust is a huge force for everyone involved with this band. If you’re living in a world where you can’t trust people, it’s very very difficult – and in the past that’s how it was. Now we’re surrounded by people that we trust and want to be like; so when they share advice or an opinion with us we take it to heart because we know we’re not perfect. And that’s the best we can do – is surround ourselves with people that we trust. In the past we were around people that just were sketchy but we thought our career could benefit from it and we now realize they had nothing to do with it – because success is being happy. That’s the height of gratitude. You get rid of the riff-raff.”
From their management to their crew, the band gave nods to all the people they’re surrounded with who have helped secure that trust – but it’s absolutely their friendship and respect for one another that built the foundation. With encouragement on the topic, it was a privilege to hear the guys open up about each other. Allen, originally from the UK, had been living in the States for a decade before he came across Billy and Eric. “Before I met those guys I was trying to be creative; trying to play, just keep playing, keep playing – trying to write and do what I could to be creative. Then these boys came along as a God-send to be honest with you. I’m very lucky,” says Allen. His band mates feel lucky too. “Rob is a very compassionate, very loving, very caring person,” says Sanderson. “All he ever wants in life is to make people happy… He’s always asking, ‘Are you ok?’ You know, he’s always checking in and making sure everything is good. He’s a rock-solid human being.”
Prepare for that warm and fuzzy feeling. Allen’s words on McCarthy: “Bill has one of the most interesting minds I’ve ever come across. His mind is incredible. His mind is that big and the same size as his heart; the biggest heart you’ll ever know. He’s a good soul. I look at him as like, Papa Bear, ya’ know – I’ll ask him for advice. I always try and kind of look after him quietly. Just make sure he’s okay. I love the kid. He’s very smart. He doesn’t say he is, but he is. And he protects us – and that’s what I admire about him.”
Then there’s the heartfelt commentary from McCarthy about Sanderson. He speaks slowly and gently, taking long pauses between thoughts, applying tender care to his sincere words. “I’ve never seen Eric yell at anyone in over 10 years. I’ve never seen Eric lose his temper. When times were hard I slept at his house. When people who had offices with their name on placards – specializing in law, music, management, labels, distribution – when they were saying I was a wrap – and when other musicians were saying, ‘Yeaahhh, it’s gettin’ kind of ugly over there. I’m heading out this way. I think that’s getting to be a bad scene,’ this dude stood there. And not like he was a phone call away, but like he was right there. I could call him and talk about… headphones… talk about prison… talk about how we feel about people that are in our inner circle. It’s funny; I wandered quite a bit in my life looking for a place to have a platform to be creative with music and I really found it in this guy. He’s so patient with me. We’re getting older and more wise, but there were times that we weren’t wise. And there were plenty of reasons to say, ‘You know, you’re kind of a bumpy ride, man,’ but he didn’t. He’s just really been right there.”
With a sense of trust now so strong in their career, the band is afforded the luxury of not having to worry about anything other than being artists. Creativity. Inspiration. Imagination. It’s a topic that strikes a chord in McCarthy, who wishes our culture revolved more around intuitive imagination than the notions of mass media that influence everyone’s idea of what’s cool. “To be present as an artist the most important thing you can ever do for a child or for yourself is to try and focus on your imagination because it’s the beginning and the end of creativity,” says McCarthy with conviction. “Without imagination, what are you doing?? So protect it. It’s something I truly think about a lot. I wish that we could press reset and say ‘Look, if you want to live in this part of the galaxy where you can be marketed to every 5 minutes, then cool – but for those of you who don’t, let’s try it this other way.” SIDE NOTE: We Are Augustines’ publicist needs to call Sesame Street and get Billy connected with Elmo because they’d make a powerhouse team of imagination ambassadors. Just sayin’. That idea shared, this is yet just one of many topics that led to an inspired and interesting dialogue that is just uncommon to come across.
There’s that word again – “uncommon”. Perhaps the journey of this article has brought you to arrive at the same word with the most positive meaning imaginable. The combination of music so mighty and souls so humble adds up to one thing for fans for sure. We are all wanting to see more from We Are Augustines. More music, more success, more celebration. With sunken ships now recovered, it’s their star that’s rising next.